Bang for your improvement buck: Love for the ball vs. love of playing

One problem with the way organized soccer works in the U.S. is that it gets kids to fall in love with playing soccer without falling in love with the ball.

The problem is that they love to play it, but they don’t love to practice it or have too many thoughts about getting better.

What’s not to love about playing? We make quite the production of it. Nice uniforms, nice fields, nice soccer complexes, officials and lots of folks cheering on the kids.

Even sideline toxicity sends the message that the kids are doing something important if adults get that worked up about it.

Why get better? They get to play either way, and occasionally, even if just by luck, they get to be the hero.

I agree with Tom Byer. Kids don’t quit soccer because of all the BS ‘the research’ points to. They quit when the kids who love the ball are kicking their teeth in and they realize they are years behind them and it would take years and effort that they aren’t willing to put in to catch up.

In other words, for all those years they loved to ‘play’ soccer, they never actually learned some of soccer’s ball basics.

Equal play time in youth sports, Part II

From Twitter (I’m Seth):

I wrote more about my experience here.

We overestimate how much development happens during games. We think it’s 80% of development when it really should be about 5%.

That overestimation makes us believe play time is more important then it really is, which is why coaches tweet about equal play time and parents might lose their marbles about it every now and then.

Organized games should be viewed like math tests. Tests aren’t the place to learn math skills. The learning happens while preparing for tests. The test is where you show what you learned.

If you did not prepare for the test, you might learn a few things while taking it, but just a tiny fraction had you prepared.

I think we would be much better off if we view organized games like that.

Bad News Bears Soccer

I’ve watched too many games over the past couple years of high school aged kids where the following passage from Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home, comes to mind:

“Soccer is a passing and shooting game, but passing and shooting has to come after learning how to control the ball. And passing and shooting comes so much easier if you do that.

I watch kids’ teams play soccer and despair sometimes. ‘How can they be so bad?’ I ask myself. Most kids can’t even move the ball from one foot to the other.

What’s the problem?

The problem is people don’t know what the problem is.”

The problem is that there are basics of the game and these kids don’t have them and as Tom points out, nobody seems to notice.

They can’t receive, pass or dribble.

Most of their first touches turn the ball over and put the team in a better spot.

Passing completion is less than 20% and too many are to the feet of the opponent.

Balls are often dribbled directly into the defender’s feet and lost.

Goalkeepers repeatedly distribute the ball directly to the other team.

Scoring chances come at the tail end of incredible strings of lucky events, rather than purposeful action.

It’s mostly 50/50 ball as neither team ever has possession of the ball for more than a few touches.

The players have no idea how to communicate and they all seem to want to make excuses for their own mishaps and blame others for mishaps.

Dumb soccer debate: Isolated vs. opposed training

Is there a sport that doesn’t require both?

Is there a sport where the amount of one or the other doesn’t depend on the current skill level, or whether the movement is new to player?

Is there a sport where skills aren’t first built in isolated training and then honed under pressure and in competition?

‘But, Ronaldo was created in the opposed training environment of street soccer!’

Has anyone asked him if he ever worked on new moves on his own, at home or on the sideline waiting for next, before trying them in out against others?

Here’s what I notice about those on either side of the debate.

Advocates of opposed training deal primarily with players who develop 95% of their skills away from training, at home or in pickup. Out of sight, out of mind. Since they don’t see how much effort these players put into those skills, they think all players have that level of ability or they think they got to that level of ability with their opposed team training environment and discount the effort the players do on their own.

The opposed training advocates also tend to straw man the “isolated” side of the debate as if the other side believes isolated training is the only thing needed. I haven’t seen anyone who believes that. Rather, they support progression from isolated to competition.

Those who advocate isolated training typically work with players that do not work on their own or play pickup to develop their skills and need a healthy foundation of isolated training to build muscle memory before working up to using in competition.

How do you inspire love for the soccer?

I don’t know. Do you?

If so, please share.

I discussed this recently with another coach.

He told me something that I used to believe strongly, too: part of the club and coach’s responsibility is to develop interest in the sport.

I still believe that. But, my experience tells me that club and coach is a tiny part of that process for most kids.

Early on I thought sparking an interest would be easy. There were times I thought I was onto something, but the raised interest seemed to revert to the mean of barely interested after a short time.

Too often, unexpectedly, I found that teaching kids the fundamentals was counterproductive to sparking an interest. I discovered some kids loved the unstructured chasing of the ball and the game lost its magic for them as they learned there was some method to the madness and they were expected to learn it if they wanted to continue to play.

I also noticed that kids from soccer households seemed to like soccer more than those that didn’t. Pulisic and Sargent are great examples. It’s obvious that both were much more strongly influenced by coming from households where both parents had played at relatively high-levels than by their club experiences. Has either even mentioned an influential youth coach?

Few kids, maybe 10%, not from a soccer family developed a true interest in the sport. Some liked the activity, but not enough to do anything on their own. Others simply didn’t like it and quit as soon as their parents let them.

That’s why I like Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home. He’s onto something that we overlook about all sports: a good deal of interest level and skill acquisition occurs starting at age 1 or 2 and is a product of the environment and activities that engage the young kids in their home.

We believe kids ‘get coordinated’ between ages 7 and 10 and can suddenly throw baseballs with pinpoint accuracy, for example. But what really happens is that many kids have been playing catch with all sorts of things since they could walk and we overlook how instrumental those 6-7 years of unstructured development were.

Go some place where kids don’t grow up playing catch and watch an otherwise coordinated and athletic adult try to throw a baseball for the first time and they look as coordinated and accurate doing that as a typical American 5-year-old.

If the goal is to grow soccer and improve the men’s players at the top level in the U.S, I think there’s a 10x better chance starting with the route Tom has identified rather than what we currently have.

The system we currently have rewards participation, rather than progress, and keeps kids doing the activity of soccer (rather than developing as soccer players) long past what their interest and ability level would warrant in other sports.

How many 14-year-old competitive basketball players are there who never played pickup basketball or shot on their driveway or park hoop for hours on end? Probably not many, unless they are tall and can block shots.

How many 14-year-old competitive soccer players do we have who have never played pickup soccer or shot on a backyard or park goal for hours on end? Too many. Maybe most.

Bang for your buck: game time vs play time

Continuing with the theme of my previous post, if you see organized game time as the main way for players to improve, you’re making a bad investment.

You are making this investment if you ask your child’s coach, “How is she supposed to improve if she doesn’t get enough play time?”

Is a piano recital the only place a piano student improves?

Is a math student the only place to learn math?

You will get more bang for your buck to see piano recitals and math tests as ‘top of the pyramid’ exercises.

‘Top of the pyramid’ moments are meant to motivate effort in the middle and base layers of the pyramid to foster mastery.

In piano, lessons are the middle layer and self-practice is the base layer. In math, class is the middle layer and self-practice is the base. Without the base, recitals and math tests don’t go so well.

In soccer, games are the top of the pyramid, with practice in the middle and self-practice/play as the base layer.

Most kids who might miss a few minutes of their equal game time, get zero play time at home.

The best way to earn more game is with more play time.

Bang for your improvement buck: soccer and cycling

In my bicycle racing days, we giggled at newbies who showed up to a time trial with their shiny new top-end bikes that cost 5 times our entry level racing bikes.

Why? Because they didn’t yet know that 90% of your performance was determined by your training and 10% by your equipment. The best investment you could make was getting your butt in shape. That was worth minutes in a 10 mile trial, while the best equipment was worth seconds.

I see the same mistake made in youth soccer when parents want their kids in the best clubs but don’t think about the thing that’s about 10x more valuable: developing a love for the ball.

The best team will make a player 10% better. Developing a love for the ball will make them 100% better or more.

Bicycle racers are known snobs, but at least we let the newbies in on the secret after their dismal showing. Many responded by training their tails off and closing the gap.

It might help if more soccer folks were like snobby cyclists. Thinking back, I’m amazed that when I was a newbie soccer player in adult leagues and couldn’t trap, dribble or pass worth a hoot, not one soccer snob suggested that I go spend copious amounts of time with the ball.

Key message: Parents, if your kid doesn’t spend much time outside of team stuff working with the ball, don’t expect much. It’s not the club’s fault when they don’t become rock stars. Help your kids focus on the activity that has 10 times the return than just showing up to practice. Put that first, club second.

The most surprising thing about coaching kids soccer

Many things surprised me. But one really stood out.

Crazy parents? Poor refs? You can win so much by playing so wrong?

Those were surprising, but something even surpassed those.

I think it needs to be fixed to improve the quality of soccer in the U.S. all around and the top.

Okay…maybe I’m laying the BS on a little thick. But, I do think it would help.

I was surprised by how much gets in the way of kids improving.

I was even more surprised by how kids are their own worst enemies. Stupid me, I thought kids would want to get better. Nah.They want to be good already.

Kids avoid direct comparisons and overestimate their ability. “Yeh, Johnny can score goals, but I can take the ball from anyone!” They hear “good pass” as “you’re the best player on the team!” Egos are powerful and misleading.

That’s why crystal clear feedback should be the goal.

Our soccer system mucks up the feedback, too.

In this post I wrote about how pickup culture provides better feedback than organized teams, and strong soccer countries have a tightly interwoven pickup culture.

Here I wrote about how the sports clubs in strong soccer countries provide good feedback to kids in ways that our clubs do not.

Crystal clear feedback doesn’t mean telling kids they are terrible. It means giving kids a glimpse of where they should head, letting them know how far along they are and how they can move further. The posts above describes how pickup and clubs in other countries do just that.

Come to think of it, it bugged me as a coach how uncommon it was for the kids to praise or correct each other. They didn’t learn to do it in pickup and on a team, they figured that was the coach’s job. Yet, another area where they didn’t get the feedback they need.

GTA + Soccer Training = Success??

This Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast is worth a listen: Using Game Design in Training Sessions.

The guest, Sergev Rabinoviz, discusses bringing the addictive video game design elements into soccer practice.

One way he does it is to track scores players earn during rondos (training games) that places players into a 1st, 2nd and 3rd division pro/rel system.

I like this idea, though, because it takes away subjectivity and bias inherent to coaches rankings and puts the ownership in the players’ hands.

If anyone complains about what division their kid is in, you can show them what the scores are based on and tell them what to work on to improve their scores.

It sounds like this works well with high performing teams, Sergev’s team and Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina women’s team.

I’m interested to see it would work well with beginning and mid-level teams. I think that’s were we miss out in the U.S. As Tom Byer says, “raise the bottom to push up the top.”

Due to covid-19, youth soccer players will never have a practice rained out again

Rather, when the weather is bad, they can just Zoom in.

During regular times, that will provide a good opportunity to discuss tactics and review game footage, of their own games or examples from pro games, too.

And, thank goodness, no more parent meetings in loud, hot and chaotic pizza buffets!